First Chapter Blues


I submitted chapter one of my manuscript to Critique Circle and received great feedback.

The trouble is, most suggestions and comments leaned towards breaking those ‘first chapter rules’.

You know the ones:

  • Jump right into the action. Start with action; explain it later–done
  • No Back story –done
  • No Descriptions –done
  • Never open a book with the weather –okay, I didn’t open with the weather but I might have mentioned it.  🙂
  • Avoid prologues –done
  • Introduce the love interest in the first chapter –done (remember this is a romance novel)

Here is a comment from one critique:

I think you could have told your reader more about Sarah in the very beginning: what grade does she teach? Do teachers normally wear jeans to class? When she walks outside, could you show the name of the school? Could she look in a classroom mirror so we know what she looks like? At least reveal her age?

My dilemma: how do I make people care about Sarah if I’m not allowed to tell them anything about her in the first chapter?

I’ve written this chapter several times and have many different versions. The version I submitted was the rewrite where I jump right into a rape scene. The other versions varied. One offered her physical description, one offered some back story and another went into some detail about her job.

Another problem is, showing and not telling. If I explain ‘tell’ then I get dinged for it, but when I ‘show’—or write from a close perspective most don’t understand what’s happening.

In the beginning scene, Sarah is leaving work and she’s attacked. He knocks her unconscious, drags her into the bushes, and starts ripping her clothes off. If she’s unconscious and the scene is written from her POV then how can I say, ‘she was knocked unconscious and dragged into the bushes’? She wouldn’t wake up and think, ‘I was knocked unconscious and he dragged me into the bushes’, she’d wake up groggy, and confused, and hurt. So I wrote groggy and confused. I felt pretty confidence about the description of her waking up, as I’ve been knocked unconscious a few times and remember very well how I felt when I woke up.

I guess there’s a subtle difference here that I’m not getting. I need to find a way to say it but still stay in her perspective. Maybe I’m just too black and white. Too analytical? It’s either follow the rules, or don’t?

Should I follow the rules, or the comments of the many readers? I’m sure there’s a fine line I’m missing here, so if you see it—PLEASE point me to it!



Forgive my whining above. I wrote this post before Darksculptures critiqued my chapter, and before I did the edits over weekend. I think I found the middle ground but I’m not totally sure. I may re-post on CC and see what I get back.

Thank you, DS! Your feedback made things more clear for me. You were very specific and explained what was missing in way that made sense. Not that the other feedback was useless, most was helpful, but yours illuminated my light bulb.

16 thoughts on “First Chapter Blues

  1. I came across your blog in WP Tags. It caught my attention because I write too & often get thrown for a loop after I get critiqued. I have to let it sit a few days or the comments just confuse things for me.

    I like your blog! I mean, non-blog 🙂

    1. That is exactly the key. Not only letting the story (or chapter) sit, but I have to let the critiques sit too. I read them then walk away for a while. When I go back hours later I can read them with a clear head. Especially when they’re harsh crits.

      Thanks, Kirsten, for visiting and for commenting!

  2. Oh, I have got to figure out how to use Critique Circle. I joined it but haven’t done anything. I should probably put my headphones and pajamas on and chain myself to my desk for a couple of months.

    I’m not such a big rule follower so I would have a tendency to go with reader comments. But also with your gut — it’s YOUR story.

    1. I agree, readers comments are important. But what I’ve come to realize is, a lot of the people on this site (CC) have less experience than I do writing fiction. And some have tons of experience writing fiction.
      If I ever want an agent or publisher to read what I’ve written I need to follow the first page rule. And REALLY–do we need to know what grade Sarah teaches while she’s being raped. If you put the scene in perspective, her age, grade and eye color have nothing to do with the fact that a 225 pound man is on top of her ripping her clothes off. RIGHT?
      Now, granted, the fact that he is approximately 225 pounds is important. 🙂 Because he is, in fact, on top of her ripping her clothes off.

      The truth is, you have to take everything with a pound of salt. Most people have several good tips to improve the story. Some people have a couple of excellent tips to improve the story and at least one person will always what you to rewrite it in their words.
      That being said, I will submit more. It was valuable enough to do it again I just have to remember that suggestions are not law. I don’t have to take all the suggestions and incorporate then into MY story.
      Blah blah blah, sorry for my rant. This could have been another blog post. 🙂

      1. Aww, thanks. I feel like I just got a virtual hug.

        I’ve noticed much of the same things about CC as you have. Some crits are gold and you can tell the writer is experienced. Others, not so much. But even those people will sometimes see something that might have been overlooked by others.

        In the end it’s your story. You know what advice fits and what doesn’t. Your instincts are good. Just follow them. They’ve gotten you this far.

  3. Definitely don’t think you have to take all the suggestions as gospel. It’s good that you realize not all writers in this critique group are at the same level. Usually, it’s the newer writers who preach the “writing rules” to you. And I’ve never even heard of some of those “rules” you mentioned. No description in the first chapter? I must be misunderstanding that one because it makes absolutely no sense to me … and sounds like it would result in dull writing.

  4. All great books I have read are unique in their own way. I just wondered how come there must be rules. If I writer follows the same rules, would she make a difference? I believe it is a writer unique approach that will distinguish her from others which are following similar patterns. 🙂

  5. I attended my very first critique group last night and had a VERY short section of Elisah critiqued. I got some good feedback, but then one thing that really bothered me, that sort of suprised me, actually. I am not sure if I agree with her, but it was the instructor who said it and she’s got published work, o I am going to sit on what she said. She may be right, but I think it’s a good idea to just wait and see what I think about what she said in a few days and not respond too quickly one way or the other.

    On the other hand, she commented on someone else’s story and said that her opening sentence was confusing and didn’t catch her right. Personally, I loved it and thought it was a striking description and made me want to keep hearing her story.

    So some things are just a matter of opinion!

    1. You are very smart to wait on your changes. Let the critique sink in and give yourself a chance to understand it fully before you react emotionally to the feedback–good or bad.

  6. Absolutely. It’s YOUR story. I was in a poetry critique group once and everyone hated a particular line in a poem — and it was my favorite line. I ignored them, and eventually the poem was published my way. I still am glad I left it the way I did!

    1. Thanks for visiting. Of course, I don’t mind helpful tips. I have considered changing my starting point.
      I just went too far into the action and didn’t consider how confusing it would be to the readers when they couldn’t picture the scene.
      Thanks again!

  7. Okay, once this week from hell is over I’m gonna really cruise around CC.

    And hello? I don’t think knowing whether Sara is a 1st or 4th grade teacher while she’s getting raped is really what readers need. Go with your gut….

    BTW — we’re switching my blog URL to so if you could update the link on your blogroll I’d appreciate it. The old link will continue to re-direct to the new URL for a while. This will help keep my writing related stuff separate from other stuff. Thanks!

    1. Even after all my complaining, I’ve still learn a lot from CC by just reading other crits.
      Also, I can still hear feedback from a reader, even if I don’t agree with them. It’s certainly better than no readers, which is what I had before.

      I changed the link.

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